Tuesday, April 29, 2014

First Impressions of The States (Part 1)

Santa Cruz Boardwalk, California...an icon of the Northern California coast

I first stepped foot on US soil in the Los Angeles International airport where I had a short layover before heading to San Fransisco. As I headed for the baggage pick-up on my way to customs, an enormous billboard caught my attention.  It was a picture of downtown LA at night on fast forward and had different messages fade in and out.  I caught it just at the moment when it read “You Belong Here”.  It was one of those moments where I thought,…..“Are you talking to me?”   “Is there anyone else looking at this billboard right now?”  I went to take out my camera, but it was too late.  I felt like I was Kevin Costner in the movie, field of dreams where the corn field whispers to him, “If you build it,….he will come!”  There was a reason I was suppose to see that message on the billboard.  I went to get out my camera and take a picture of the it, but it had already changed.  I waited for about 5 minutes for the billboard to cycle through the messages, but it never reappeared. Funny.

The billboard message sent me into some deep thinking,….Do I really belong here? I haven’t felt like I’ve belonged in the States for ages, but perhaps, this is the time in my life when I finally will feel like I belong.  I’m just as anxious as everyone else who has asked me, “So Melissa, how does it feel to be back in the States?”  It’s been about a year and a half since I last visited, although I usually come back twice a year for about a month or 5 weeks total.  I haven’t lived here full time since my early twenties.

I set off for Spain shortly after I graduated from college and life ever after changed dramatically for me.  I received The Ambassadorial Scholarship from The Rotary Foundation for the 2003-04 school year and I left for Spain August 23, 2003.  My scholarship was suppose to be for a year, but I ended up staying ten!  I left for Barcelona at a crucial time in my life.  I was 22 years old and just started to discover who I was and what made me happy in this immense world.  In college, I had studied abroad for a semester in England and a summer in Spain. Life abroad had its appeal for me. In a foreign country everything was a novelty! Menial tasks like buying a croissant and coffee to taking the metro to the center of town turned into one big adventure! I always said that I would come home when the novelty wore off and/or I get bored…..but guess what?  Bored just isn’t a word in my vocabulary, and with such a positive outlook on life, the adventures and fascinating experiences were never ending and Barcelona ended up becoming home.  I loved speaking a different language, in fact, I picked up my third in Catalunya becoming fluent in Catalan after a few years.  I also fell in love, which was reason enough to extend my stay, but regardless of my relationship, I had created my life and settled in Barcelona.  I completed a second university degree in contemporary jewelry design, was giving private English classes, and started working at the Benjamin Franklin International School.

I guess you could say that I’m finally making my way home now, after living in Barcelona for 10 years, although I don’t have intentions on staying here for good. You know what happens though when I say “never”, so I hesitate to make that statement!  I come back frequently to visit my family, as it seems to continually grow with the addition of nieces and nephews every few years.  However, for those visits, I stay in my bubble- keeping to the places where my family lives and spending the majority of time with them.  I haven’t actually gone on vacation in the states for quite some time, and if I don’t intend on living here in the future, I want to make sure I see the places that have always interested me.  That is why I chose to do the massive tour of the West Coast and the National Parks on my bike trip. 

Therefore, The Loong Way Home, is the first time in a long time, when I will have the chance to explore and get to know the United States from a unique perspective.  I’m no longer living here, but I’m not from Spain,….which is why in my mind, the question “Where are you from?” is all relative.  I love asking my students this question at the start of the year because mom is usually from one country, dad, another, they were sometimes born in a different country and now living in Spain.  It was fascinating to see where they consider “home”.  I was born and raised in Oregon, surely my passion for the outdoors and my love of nature came from here, but really, my time in Barcelona impacted me, and the person I am today.  That is why it was so ironic to see the billboard in the Los Angeles airport.  I have always felt like I belong in Barcelona.  The billboard just confirmed my current philosophy in life, that is, to live in the moment, and enjoy my present surroundings, which are now in the United States. 
That is a half sandwich,...I don't want to see the size of a whole piece of bread!
A one person Creme Brulee,.....it could have fed a small family, except that the Pritchard's have a big appetite!

It is easy for me to be critical of the States living abroad.  Many times when I come back to visit my family, I feel completely “out of it”, like a foreigner in my native country! My first impressions are always very superficial. Everything is so big, spacious, fast!  A “small” drink in the States is a large in Europe or Australia.  Portions are so large at restaurants here that the phenomenon of a “doggie bag” exists, something I have completely forgotten about living abroad.  Stores and restaurants never seem to close in comparison to Spain.  There is everything and anything at the tip of your fingertips…..any time of day. Talking about fingertips, I find it fascinating that so much here is automatic.  I have a heart attack almost every time the toilet starts flushing automatically after me before I have a chance to pull up my pants! All you do is stick your hands under the faucet to start the water and get soap.  You wave your hand in front of the paper towel machine, and voila, out come the towels.  Car doors are all automatic too-you try to close them manually and they work against you!
Anything goes.....my brother driving with Penny sitting on his lap, what a laugh!

The sky is the limit to meet people’s wants and needs here in the United States. For instance, you walk into a grocery store in Spain and you have your choice of white bread or wheat.  Here, you walk into a grocery store and there are 10 different varieties of white bread, 10 different loaves of wheat, and 20 other types of bread from enriched flour, to low carb, to gluten free and low “G.I”…..the choices are endless.  The cereal aisle is the most fascinating for me!   It’s unbelievable how many different types of cereal there are, do you really need so many choices?!?  For someone like me who gets easily overwhelmed with decision-making, well, you can imagine what happens. 
I was delighted to see the huge selection of potatoes,....reminded me of Cambodia!
The selection of tropical fruit in the non-organic section......incredible!

My first day in the back here, my friend took me to a famous grocery store in Berkeley, called the Berkeley Bowl, known for it’s vast selection of fresh produce and organic goods.  I couldn’t believe my eyes as I meandered through the organic fruit and vegetable aisles.  I was completely in awe with all the produce.  In fact, I thought that was the entire store selection of fruits and vegetables,….little did I know that the non-organic fruits and vegetables, which was even larger, was right around the corner!  I had flashbacks of when I took my ex-boyfriend to the supermarket for the first times in Oregon when he visited, it became an all day event, no joke!  In fact one time, I just left him to peruse, and he walked home at his own leisure.  Now it all makes sense! 

Who would have thought I would find Jack Fruit in the States,....it comes from Mexico, but they have it!
I’m also really out of it with the pop culture here.  I guess that is my own fault, since I don’t watch TV or the news.  I don’t even download TV series on my computer or keep up with the new release movies.  Call me crazy, but I find other ways to entertain myself.    My music tastes are about 5 years behind, and I don’t pick up on the local lingo.  Walking out of a restaurant the other night after having dinner with some high school friends, a guy made a comment referring to us as “cornbread” since we were white.  I actually had to have them explain the term to me.  It’s like I need a translator here at times.  That night I also told my parents I would walk home from the restaurant to the hotel through town.  They would have nothing of it.  They thought the neighborhood was unsafe.  Interesting right?  But I haven’t thought about my safety being in jeopardy for a long time; it hasn’t really been an issue for me anywhere on my trip.  I give people the benefit of the doubt and trust them.  I hope the same rule applies here in the States…..
I'm confident that people also value trust here.......

There are a ton of fruit stands along the road, lots run by Latinos so I can speak plenty of Spanish with them

The biggest shocker upon arriving this time is the amount of Spanish speakers I have encountered.  I love it! My life on a bike revolves around the service industry- I’m constantly visiting cafes, restaurants, and fruit stands, and so far, here, that industry is dominated by the Latino culture.  It is wonderful for me because after 8 months of being on the road and not encountering more than a handful of Spanish speakers, I get to use my Spanish throughout a good majority of my day.  I must say when I first start up a conversation they are pretty shocked to hear Spanish coming out of the mouth of a blonde-hair, blue-eyed girl.  After asking of course, how it is that I speak Spanish, they don’t hesitate to continue the conversation in their language.  I love it! Needless to say, my head is a complete discombobulation of Spanish, English, and Catalan….there is a total language chaos jostling around up there! Socorro!!!!

Like I said, it is easy for me to be critical of the United States, but what fun would it be to spend the next 6 months of my trip constantly comparing and criticizing this country?  To tell you the truth, I’m excited to be back to the United States and have the opportunity to spend more than 4 or 5 weeks visiting.  Now, I will actually have time to just be, live, and experience this country again, after being gone for so many years.  I’m much more confident and mature than I was 12 years ago when I left the States to live abroad.  I know who I am, what I like, and what I need to make me happy.  I’m curious to see if I will settle into a way of life and routine that fulfills my needs and makes me happy.  So far I’m still in the a bit of shock, sorting out how things work.  This US Standard measurement system is going to fry my brain with all the converting to kilometers and kilograms…. But hey, that is all part of the fun of traveling and getting used to life here is no different than the way I start out in every other country I’ve been to so far on my trip!  Here we go again, country number 25!  
PS. I say part 1 because at some point, when the moment presents itself, I will disclose more information about the history to how and why I chose to live in Spain for so long!

Saturday, April 26, 2014

An Official Good-Bye to Australia

Yes, I have arrived in the States!!!  Thanks for the overwhelming amount of welcomes.  I know everyone is eager to know how I’m feeling back in my native country, however, before I disclose that, I can’t move on without saying a proper “good-bye” or “see you soon!” to Australia.

Northwest Tasmania, filled with lots of climbs and temperate rainforests 
Tasman Peninsula, Southeast Tasmania

I couldn’t have panned a better way to end my route down under.  Tasmania was all that I expected and more! I had pretty much moved Tasmania (and Australia for that matter) to the top of my list before I even hit the East Coast of the island.  After my visit to Maria Island, there was no question that Tasmania was #1 on the list.  What list is this you might ask? Well, I actually have quite few different lists on this trip,….an ongoing list of things to do, a list of livable places to settle down, a list of places I want to come back and explore more, a list of my favorite food/meals, a list of my favorite roads,….. But Tasmania actually moves to the top of my list for overall favorite places I’ve visited on this trip. Australia actually crept to the top of the list of places where I could see myself living and working after this trip! 

I ohh and ahhh an incredible amount on the road.  WOW!, is the most frequent word out of my mouth! Therefore it becomes quite difficult to choose a “favorite” place I’ve been.  The most popular question kids ask me during a school visit is just this, “Which country is your favorite?”  I hate to label some thing or some place as my favorite, because I’m able to see neat and unique qualities in all the country I’ve been to, and I can’t admit to have been treated poorly or been appalled by the food in any particular country.  In order to substantiate a subjective label like this, I have a strict criteria for evaluating a destination based on three key elements in the world of tour cycling: people/culture, food, and scenery.  Some places like Cambodia have delicious food and a fascinating culture, but the scenery isn’t as spectacular as New Zealand let’s say!  However, New Zealand didn’t score very high in the food category.  In Tasmania (although I found this to be true all over mainland Australia) the people were incredibly kind and hospitable, the food was high class and varied, and the scenery was diverse and constantly impressive.

A more arid region of Tasmania north of Hobart

Hells Gate, West Coast, Tasmania
Nothing is flat in Tasmania, rolling hills in the north
Tasmania is like a miniature New Zealand.  In both places, I spent almost the entire day pedaling next to uninterrupted natural beauty. It made me wonder…… What were the Brits were thinking sending convicts to such a beautiful place?!?!  If I lived back in the day, I would have stolen a loaf of bread in England just to get on the boat to go to Tasmania and experience it’s impressive surroundings!  There is one real big city in Tasmania of considerable size, and two or three other decent size towns.  The majority of the other land in untouched, undeveloped, and many well preserved national and state parks.    In  fact, if you look at a map of Tasmania, there aren’t even any roads that traverse the southwest part of the island because nature is so wild and dense.  Tasmania has almost every type of landscape imaginable except for snow capped mountains for downhill skiing, although Mt. Wellington and Cradle Mountain do get snow during the winter! There is beautiful farmland, dry plains and parched rolling hills.  There is temperate rainforest and rocky ocean shores, sandy beaches, and picturesque river valleys and gorges.  The advantage of this small island is that you never have to pedal very far to get from one place to another. 

Just behind Hobart is Mt. Wellington, a great ride or place to hike!
Kangaroos grazing on Maria Island, Tasmania

Beaches in Australia also deserve special attention, and this is coming from someone who prefers mountainous landscapes to beaches. Everyone seems to equate Asia with beautiful beaches and heads there for their beach holidays.  Asia is a great inexpensive beach destination, but Australia’s beaches are the best I’ve seen in the world and incredibly diverse!  At many of the beaches I saw, there were surfers and swimmers, but there were also plenty of beaches with kangaroos and cows grazing, and rocky cliffs that invited for people to do all sorts of activities like hiking and mountain biking and many beaches where the temperate forests grows right up next to the coastline. 

Freycinet National Park, Tasmania
Tasman Peninsula, Tasmania
Painted Cliffs, Maria Island, Tasmania

If I had to choose between the food in Australia and a country in SE Asia, I would probably choose an Asian country.  However, what I enjoyed about the food in Australia is that it is so diverse.  Because of their large international population, you can find authentic delicious laksa and Indian curry anywhere in Australia or be more than satisfied with a native kangaroo burger or the catch of the day straight from a fishing boat at the pier.  There is a variety of fruits in this country and since there is a tropical region up north, Australia seasonal fruit all year round!  Cold coffee drinks can’t be beat in SE Asia, but Australia has a unique coffee culture. In Australia, it all comes down to what kind of coffee machine you have, and believe me, I tried them all!  With a cup of coffee, it is hard to pass up a pastry and Australia’s baked goods are top notch!  I never considered myself a wine drinker until I arrived in Australia, and the wine in Tasmania superb!  I passed vineyard after vineyard all over the island.  But if you don't like wine, there are plenty of microbrews and ciders as well-What a reward at the end of a long day of riding!

The buffet lunch on the Gordon River cruise, unbeatable!

Ciders are the new trend here in Tasmania

Finally, Australia wouldn’t be Australia without its culture!  Coming from Asia where it was harder to find English language speakers, I found it quite easy to really get to know people in Australia, share ideas, compare perspectives, and enjoy their company.  The amount of hospitality that I received in Australia was unheard of.  In fact, despite what you might think, I actually spent less money in Australia than Asia! How is this possible? People’s generosity!  I had an incredible network of hosts from Thomson Bike Tour clients, friends of theirs, friends of friends, and other teachers I met previously on the trip.  Not to mention, I received gracious amounts of random acts of kindness all throughout mainland Australia and Tasmania. 

Stu, myself, and Kersti, great hosts on the mainland
Future TBT clients hosted me at their beach shack in Port Arthur, Tasmania
My host, Georgie Brown, and I, enjoying local Tasmanian wine.

Australians have a wonderful quality of life.  The way of life here reminds me a lot of Europe, and this might very well be because of all of the European ancestory and more recent immigration.  It seems they embrace a multi-culture society, and value diversity.  At Melbourne’s night market with food booths from around the world, if you don’t speak English with a foreign accent you are a minority, and in Sydney’s Chinatown, you feel as though you’ve traveled to Malaysia and Vietnam when you enter some of the local restaurants. Here’s another simple example to get insight into the Australian culture.  I always find it interesting to observe the cafes in different countries.  In Europe, just like Australia,….most cafes don’t serve coffees to go! Paper cups don’t really exist.  Why? -Because people value a 10 to 15 minute break in their day to stop, relax, rest, disconnect, and feel refreshed before they go back to work.  Maybe this is where the saying “Stop and smell the coffee comes from?” It sure didn’t originate from the United States where it is almost virtually impossible to find a café that doesn’t serve their coffee out of a to go cup.  Why? – Because why would you stop to have a coffee if you can bring it with you while you do something else!

With all this goodness inside Australia, funny enough, the Aussies are a very modest culture. They are reserve yet content and quite clever to keep their country a secret, especially Tasmania.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Tasmania has to be one of the best kept travel destinations.  I surely do hope it’s a “see you soon!” rather than a good-bye to Australia……

*To view my complete Tasmania photo albums, click here!
*To view my video of Tasmania, click here

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Grand Arrival (and Finale)

Ta da! They are back!  
My loyal support crew is back but it was no easy feat for them.  Naturally you’d want to take pity on the cyclist coming from Hobart, Tasmania with a 23 hour journey, drained from the 2000 km loop she pedaled on the island.  But this time, I have to say my parent have every right to be completely exhausted after what was suppose to be a nine drive from Eugene to San Francisco.

Mom and Dad had been planning their trip down to San Fransisco since they came back from Australia.  We had everything in place.  Their visit was key; to celebrate my Mom’s birthday (Saturday, the 26th), see their son and his family outside of San Fransisco, and accompany me again for the first few days of my route south.  They were also acting as my “pack mules” carting unwanted gear home and bringing a few special clothing items to wear on my rest days like a pair of jeans, some running shoes, and my favorite pair of PJ's (flannel AND with bikes of course).  They were driving, like they often do instead of flying, in our loyal, huge, Chevy Suburban.  Even though it is a beast of a car, and not fuel efficient by any means, at one time this car was filled with 5 kids, two parents and all their luggage for holidays.  Nowadays it gets used quite frequently when one of us decides to move, haul furniture places, cart the fishing boat or trailer, or go on a long road trip. 

They had gotten a later start than expected because my mom got an eye infection in the morning and had to go to the doctor before leaving.  They were on the road at 1pm and had driven about 4 hours when they were going over a huge mountain pass in Southern Oregon, just before the California border.  The Siskiyou mountain pass climbs about 700m (2,300ft.), a difficult challenge for someone on their bike, but a piece of cake for a car.  Going up the hill in the fast lane with the objective of passing a slow truck, my dad had the “pedal to the medal”, the accelerator topped off at 60 mph and he had another truck on his tail, honking impatiently who had good momentum going up.  All of sudden the odometer dropped and racing down to 50, 40, 35, 30,…….20.  Their speed dropped abruptly although the accelerator was still on the floor.  They had to strategically get over to the slow lane, then the shoulder, behind the slow truck and carefully, so as to not get run over by the one on their tail. What was going on?  They both wondered, thinking the oil pump had broke.  They had just about made the entire climb, and now they were stuck on the shoulder of the road in the middle of nowhere.

Our good old Suburban, almost 20 years old!  (photo taken 2 years prior)

From what they could see, the car just wouldn’t go,….be it the oil tank, radiator, or engine, they didn’t know.  The next hour was filled with one phone call after another to various people, AAA, the hotel, car rental services, the insurance company, a tow truck.  In about an hours time a tow truck had arrived to tow them back down to Medford where they could leave it at a shop and hire a car.  The shop, at this time of the night was closed, so the damaged couldn’t be assessed.  However, if they left the Suburban in Medford, it could be fixed and picked up on their way home.  At least this was the plan.  At 9pm, they got on the road again and continued driving south to their intended destination, a city just an hour north of San Fransisco.  They arrived at the hotel that night at 2am, exhausted but not defeated.  They were filled with determination to make it to the airport to pick me up the next morning at 11am.  I shouldn’t leave out the small detail that their car was also filled with a few pieces of large furniture from our neighbors, whose daughter lives just outside of San Fransisco.  This was to be delivered before my arrival.

The temporary replacement, Mom and Dad's rental car

With 4 hours of sleep, and one big nightmare fresh in their head, they managed to deliver furniture to Holly in Berkeley at 9:30 am, who was so thankful to have it.  She could make out that the trip didn’t go smoothly by my Dad’s anxiety, but it wasn’t until later that night at dinner she learned the truth when I filled her in with all the details! 
Charlie, Me, and Holly (standing in front of the delivered furniture)

Meanwhile, I was on the third leg of my flight, from San Fransisco to Los Angeles.  I was a little frustrated by American Airlines,….no snack for me on this leg of the flight, only a limited selection of beverages.  I had just gotten off two previous Qantas flights were I had been pampered like crazy with meals and drinks galore.  I’m the type of person that loves to fly- I enjoy the little perks like unlimited movie entertainment, replacing my old sleeping mask with a new one, and trying the different “special meal” options like Asian, Hindu, and Vegetarian.  For someone who is constantly on the go and always active, a plane forces me to sit still and I absolutely love it!  At home, I never watch TV or go to the movies, so for the first half hour of any international flight, I make my movie “play list” for the flight.  I also have my computer handy to “catch-up on stuff” if I feel like it, and have a ritual for preparing my eye mask, ear plugs, and sleeping pill.  I start watching the first movie, eat my dinner, take a sleeping pill, and by the time the movie is over, I can’t keep my eyes open.  I fall asleep and usually get about 4 to 6 hours of sleep, if not more.  When I wake, I have time for one more movie. 

On this trip, I tried a new strategy, staying up all night before I flew out at 6:30am.  I thought I’d for sure sleep the entire second leg, I had 14 hours from Melbourne to Los Angeles.  I actually did manage to stay up that night, but I only slept about 5 of the 14 hours.  This meant I got to try more meals and snacks, from delicious Easter chocolate and ice cream bars, to wraps and fresh fruit.  The stewardesses kept me well fed on that flight!  So by the time I arrived in Los Angeles, I didn’t need any pity.  I knew that I’d be a bit tired upon my arrival, maybe just slightly more than my parents with their nine hour car ride. 

Little did I know what they had been through….They made it to the airport on time and were right at the arrival gate to meet me.  They looked fresh as always, and it wasn’t until I asked them about their trip down that I heard the full story.  Somewhere between dropping off the furniture and getting to the airport, the car mechanics called with some sad news.  The engine had blown.  With a car that is almost 20 years old, well, you know what that means…..time to get a new car!  My parents amaze me! Nothing get in their way, not even blown engines on a mountain pass, and miles and miles of driving in the dark at ungodly hours.  For those of you who think I’m determined, well, I am, but it doesn’t even compare to my parents!

Running shoes have been successfully delivered!

The important part of this story is, that after a loong journey for us all, I’ve been reunited with my #1 support team - Welcome to the United States!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Maria Island Magic

Darlington, Maria Island

I don’t have to say much in this blog post, I think the picture do most of the talking.  However, I do need to introduce Maria Island.  For those of you who don’t know, Maria Island is located on the East Coast of Tasmania, closer to the south than the north.  It is a tiny little island, about 40 minutes by ferry from the town of Triabunna.  There are no motorized vehicles allowed on the island.  The only cars there are a few of the park ranger vehicles that drive around to survey the area.  Most people bring bikes, although  they also be hired. A lot of people just bring good old hiking boots as there are plenty of gravel paths and trails to explore.  Time on Tasmania for me is running out so I could only spend a day and night on the island, although I could have easily spent a week or more.  There is so much to see and explore but you definitely get a great taste for the island in a day. 

I expected to see a big ferry boat with a proper ticket sales office and a long cue when I rolled up to the Triabunna waterfront.  I thought I should probably arrive a good hour in advance.  The ferry left at 3:30pm, and at 2:45, there was no one to be seen, not even a boat big enough I’d call a ferry!  I popped my head in the visitor information center and sure enough I was in the right place and in fact, the boat was just 100 meters from me.  The lady there told me I could buy my ticket from the skipper directly, and that he’d show up closer to 3 or 3:15.  I went to the super market in town to pick up some groceries as there is also no store, café, or restaurant on the island.  Everyone has to bring in their own food and carry out all their waste.

By the time I returned to the harbor, things had picked up.  There was a couple, trekkers, and some women and children loading up boxes, suitcases, and backpacks of goods.  It looked like they were headed over for an entire month with the amount of stuff they had.  I bought my ticket from the skipper, John, and he helped my lift my bike onto the boat (no…there wasn’t even a proper ramp, the boat was that small).  There were 11 passengers total, maybe space for 50 passengers.  I was pleasantly surprised that with the Easter holiday there weren’t more people headed over. 

Maria Island bound......
The boast ride was the worst part of my experience.  I don’t do well on small boats; I get motion sickness.  John was so thoughtful and full of information for where to camp and cycle, but I could hardly listen as I was trying not to loose my lunch. Luckily the ride only lasted 40 minutes.  We arrived to what is called Darlington, a small establishment, once the center of convict life, that was well preserved and maybe a total of ten buildings, including what was once a coffee palace, mesh hall, penitentiary, and barn (next to which I camped).  There was also a visitor center and ranger office where I was supposed to sign in, but never saw the sign.  I was too busy strategically planning my early evening plan to make the most of the few hours of sunlight. John had told me where to go see the sunset, so I quickly ditched my bike, changed into less obvious cycling gear, and headed off to walk up to the fossil cliffs. Another thing I should mention, you don’t have to worry about anyone stealing your stuff On Maria Island.  I just left bike and all under the silos and nothing was touched.  Oh, and yes, I do appreciate time off the bike, so when there is a great path that can be hiked or biked, I choose to hike!  You have to change things up a bit, or at least I do!

Fossil Cliffs at sunset

At first I didn't recognize a live wombat, they look so different than the roadkill version

Surely there would be other walkers out, who wanted to see the sunset from the cliffs but to my surprise I found more kangaroos and wallabies than people.  In fact, I didn’t run into one other person!  I also saw my first wombat, which I didn’t recognize alive.  I’ve only seen them dead and they look much different as road kill. Alive, they still look a bit swollen and inflated, but I’d say they seem to be more of a ground koala bear than I imagined.  They are cute little fellows, and everywhere on Maria.

Sunset with mainland tasmania in the distance

My only company on my walk, heaps of wallabies

Sunset from the skipping ridge was incredible!  The cliffs were impressive, like horizontal corrugate cardboard, all different shades of bronze, that went vertically down into the waters below.  It was windy from high above, and someone with vertigo would have had their challenges, but I took it all in, jaw dropped the entire time.  Off in the distance over mainland Tasmania, the sunset and illuminated the sky with all sorts of vivid pinks, greys, and blues and I was all by myself, expect for the groups of kangaroos feasting on the grass down below. 

See that little house off in the distance,.....that is where I camped

On my way back to my bike, I spotted the perfect campsite off in the bush, above Darlington, as to not be bothered by the others, although at this point, I wasn’t convinced there were many “others” even on the island.  I collected my bike and wheeled it up the hill next to the barn, which would block my wind for the evening.  There was still enough sunlight and now moonlight to set up my tent, eat dinner without using my head torch. Again, I was in complete solitude except for the exception of some wombats and kangaroos grazing and the sound of the howling wind. Luckily the wind kept the sky free of clouds so I had the most impressive view of the stars in the southern sky before going to sleep and the temperature was just right for sleeping.

Can you remember the last time you went to sleep at 7:30pm,…and slept until 7:30 the next morning.  Well, I seem to be in this routine as I find myself free camping more and more here in Tasmania.  I seem to be catching up on a lot of missed sleep over the years.  You’d think one night of sleeping 12 hours would impede on the following night,….NOT TRUE, I can sleep and sleep, and sleep, and even have to set an alarm to make sure I’m up before I get “caught”.  Should I also admit that I wake up in a puddle of drool, from my sound sound sleep?!?!
Heading south on my walk, the storm has yet to blow in......
So many little beaches to be found here

From John’s advice, I could cycle most of the northern island in a day and see some of the main natural attractions.  However, my legs were itching for a change and I decided to try walking the same route.  I had enough time to give it a go and explore on foot.  I set off after a quick breakfast and headed towards the southern portion of the north part of the island.  I was a bit chilly when I set off, but in the matter of a half hour, I was so warm, I had stripped all my layers and wishing I had brought a bigger backpack.  I ran into a few hikers, three, to be precise, who were all headed back to Darlington.  I arrived to the southern campground on the island where there was a small house.  I didn’t think of stopping, as I felt great and didn’t need a rest.  Up above in the sky, grey clouds had rolled in.  I didn’t think anything of them, here in a Tasmania, there is a saying about the weather.  If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes and it will change.  I was quite content with the clouds, but sure enough 5 minutes later the heavens opened and down it poured.  Along with the buckets of rain came huge gusts of wind.  I tried to hide behind a tree, but it must have been the skinniest tree in the entire forest and hardly covered me.  This rain seemed to be around for more than 5 minutes so I decided to take my chances and run back to the shelter at the campsite.  By the time I reached the house, I was dripping wet.  The house was luckily open, so I went in.  There was nothing inside except for a guest registration booklet and a fireplace that said fires were prohibited. 

I couldn’t complain, at least I was out of the rain, which didn’t seem like it was going to let up any time soon.  I quickly took off my wet clothes and put on a few drier items.  Then I did something I wasn’t suppose to….I lit a small candle on the fireplace and kept sticking little piece of paper in it to keep it burning and warm my hands.  I wasn’t breaking any rule really, as my fire wasn’t in the fireplace, and I had it completely under control.  The votive candle fire was the perfect flame size to keep my hands toasty.  In the meantime, I kept my positive thoughts flowing that the rain would shortly stop.  This time it was longer than 5 minutes, but eventually the weather did change, the rain stopped, and I was able to set off walking again.  With the storm, temperatures had dropped about 7 or 8 degrees Celsius and I was chilled, to say the least.  I had a good incentive to keep a fast pace….the faster I walked, the warmer I’d be, and the quicker I’d dry.

The smallest of fire made the biggest difference.....

On the way back from my loop walk, I saw the island’s famous painted cliffs.  Again, to my surprise, I was there alone.  There was no one around and these cliffs were just about the prettiest sight I’d seen in all of Australia.  How could it be?  Where was everyone?  This is what I love about Tasmania, it is one of the best kept secrets in the world and the Australians aren’t ones to boast about themselves, their culture, or their country, so by no means are they going to spoil the natural beauty of their surroundings any time soon.  You just don’t have the mass tourism like New Zealand, but the beauty is equally astounding if not more impacting. 

The Painted Cliffs, Wow, wow, and wow!!!!

From the other side

The painted cliffs were like something out of a magazine.  The erosion from the waves makes for a symmetrical pattern of variegated shades of orange, from light to dark and back again.  The tide has to be low to see the cliffs at their prime, and luckily it was on its way out when I visited.  I must have spent a good hour sitting there in awe taking in this magical sight.

Layers of colors

With mainland Tasmania off in the distance and the sun slipping down over the mountains, I headed back to Darlington, collected my bike and belongings, again, untouched, and boarded the boat back to mainland as happy as could be. By the time I hit Darlington I had completely dried out, one more thing to be grateful for.  Maria Island had just done it for me,…….it put Tasmania at the top of my list.  What list is that?......That’s a whole other blog post, just wait and see!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Six,....I mean ONE Degree of Separation

People talk about the phenomenon "six degrees of separation", in this massive world, but here in Tassie, six gets reduced to ONE!  At least this is what I'm finding as I make my way around this "small town" kind of island.  I’ve said it many of times now....Tasmania is a tiny island and within the world of cyclists and those passionate about bikes (and coffee) it feel even smaller.

Rob and I on the Gordon River Cruise
First there was Rob and Lynne, the camper van couple I met my first night camping north of Hobart.  I spent three consecutive campsites with them and my day off in Strahan on the Gordon River cruise.  I had so much fun with Rob and Lynne, I mentioned them in a recent blog post.  They were completely unrelated to the world of cycling, but just wait,…..you will see how they play into the Tassie’s “one degree of separation” phenomenon. 

Rodger, an avid sewer, fixed my Keen sandals 
Rogers little gold car, aka "The Cho".  He took me on a tour of the NOrthwest corner of Tasmania

Next comes Rodger, a Warmshower host in Somerset, on the northern coast.  Rodger used to live in Hobart.  Talking about the city, I mentioned I had been to a bike store there to switch out some components on my bike.  Turns out Rodger went to the same shop in Hobart and knew John, who runs Cyclingo in the western part of the city.  Not so ironic, I know, they are both cyclists…..but listen to this.  Rodger rode with me from his town to my next destination, Devonport. Later that day, he went to another town to visit a friend, the exact place where Rob and Lynne happened to be staying in their camper van. Rodger recognized their camper van from my previous blog post and went over and introduced himself.   Rob, with his sense of humor, sent me the following text message:  Well stone the flaming cows! We are camped in Burnie tonight and next to us is a little golden Toyota car who recognized our vehicle and his name is Rodger! We have a good old yarn and he tells me about an American pushbiker who stayed with him and ate him out of house and home.  It’s a bloody small world  P.S. I helped him out with a few quid so he could afford a fresh meal-HA!

Rodger was an interesting host.  Not only does he love to sew, but he buys old antique sewing machines, fixes them up, and donates them to a non-profit organization in Africa. The non-profit organization isn’t sending another container in the near future and so he has some extra machines hanging around his house and he was looking for a loving home for them.  One of the machines is the same as my mom’s first machine back how. I love to sew but obviously I can’t bring a michine along with me.  However, Nerida Warburg, Jesse’s wife back in Hobart does as well, so I put the two in touch and now Nerida has a neat antique Singer sewing machine.  Of course there is one little contingency with the machine....if I move to Australia, the machine is mine (enough incentive on it’s own to get me back here).  Now these two random people know each other because of the pushbiker!

Now on to Greg who lives in Devonport, a small coastal town in the north of Tasmania.  He loves to bike and paddle. Greg is a cyclist, a friend of an Australian Thomson Bike Tour client I know on mainland.  She put the two of us in touch. He met me on the road on the way to his house and the first question out of his mouth was, “Were you just at the cafe Playfish having a coffee date?”  “Yes,” I answered suspiciously.  I was at that café having a coffee and cake with a teacher from my school visit, who is actually the cousin of the Udine International School in Italy, one of the first schools I visited on my trip.  It turns out Greg’s wife and daughter were also at Playfish, their favorite coffee shop, and recognized me, still wearing all my bike attire.  Devonport is small, but has plenty of cafes.  It just so happens we chose the same one!

Me and Rachael outside Playfish,....no doubt the place to go for coffee and sweets in Devonport.....

Here I am with Andy, the captain of the boat, a good friend of Greg's

Talking about my travels up the west coast, it turns out Greg knows the captain of the boat on Gordon River cruise.  I wouldn’t have known his name or even him, but since I was with Rob and Lynne on the cruise, Rob and I went wondering on the boat and met the captain.  Andy was a Strahan local and I asked him all about the roads in the area.  After the cruise he wanted to see my bike, so I showed him. If Greg mentioned me to Andy, surely he’d remember that girl cycling around the world….

Greg and I were also separated by “one degree” with two other people.  On my first morning he took my paddling on the ocean at the crack of dawn.  Two other friends came over at 5:30 and we set off together.  I paddled with Bob, who worked for Tasmania’s forestry department and also biked.  He started explaining all the visitors he gets thanks to friend in Sydney who is a Warmshowers host. He mentioned having several Spaniards and one couple stood out in particular, Javi and Claudia.  I don’t personally know these two Catalan cyclists, however, they did a similar Oceania bike tour a year ago and I’ve stayed with the same hosts in New Zealand and Australia.  I have read a lot of their reviews on warmshowers.org and I have stayed with hosts who constantly make reference to them.  In fact on the New South Wales coast, I tried to make a tortilla for a couple who hosted me, but their frying pan was not ideal for the famous Spanish omelet.  Turns out Claudia had attempted the same Spanish meal and was equally embarrassed by the outcome.  I wrote Claudia and Javi later that day to introduce myself and let them know I had been paddling with Bob, who is actually getting ready to go to Barcelona as part of his European tour this summer. 

Ambleside Cafe: That's one serious coffee machine for a passionate coffee drinker
An important detail about Greg is his amazing coffee machine.  After paddling or riding with his friends in the wee hours of the morning, they always end up at his place afterwards for coffee.  His house is called the Kayak club and the coffee, “Ambleside Café”.  In Tassie, I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive, but rather the coffee machine you have at home.  Greg’s was impressive and so was my next host’s machine.  Georgie and Steve Brown had a built in Miele espresso maker.  In fact, one of the first comments I made was about their state-of-the art coffee machine and how I’d just been with a host who also had an impressive coffee machine.  As I was describing it, Steve piped up and asked,….Did your host live on the river in Devonport?  Does he cycle early in the morning with a group of guys?  Here we go again!  Turns out Steve and Georgie have a beach house close to Devonport.  One morning Steve went for a bike ride and found Greg and his crew on the roadand joined them.  Afterwards he found himself at the Ambleside Café for a coffee.  Steve was also impressed by the coffee and Greg’s cycling group.  One person stuck out in his mind in particular,….a Bob who worked in the forestry industry, like himself. 

Georgie and Steve Brownie were introduced to me by the Udine International School principal.  It's no wonder he wanted to connect us, Steve and Georgie are part owners of the  The Avanti Plus bike shop in Launceston, and Georgie actually runs it, not Steve.  I love Tassie women!
The Avanti plus bike shop in Launceston. If it weren't for carrying minimal gear, I would have loaded up on stuff here.
Me, Georgie, Izzy, and Henry on the gorge walk in Launceston

It’s a small world, all brought together through cycling and coffee here in Tasmania!  As I go cycling around the island, I’m connecting the dots from person-to-person discovering that there is one degree of separation here amongst the locals.  Not to mention, I still feel like everyone knows me, like a small town celebrity.  On the west coast everyone recognized me as the girl with the yellow bags who they’d passed on the road earlier.  Here, up north, I’m known as the girl in Saturday’s newspaper they read about.  In fact, I pulled up to the supermarket in a town today and a lady there gave me money for lunch even though I insisted she didn’t.  She was inspired by my story and wanted to do something for me. 

I’m headed down the East coast now back to Hobart.  Perhaps I’ll go in cognito there as it has more civilization than Tassie’s west coast.  However, something tells me it’s impossible to go off the radar cycling around Tasmania…..It’s just that "small town" kind of a place!